‘An Inconvenient Truth’ Director Talks Climate and Change 10 Years After
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the release of An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary that helped bring climate change to worldwide attention. Director Davis Guggenheim, then an executive at Participant Media, left the company to film former Vice President Al Gore as he traveled around the country giving a slide show on global warming and calling for action to save the planet.
The movie, produced by Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart, proved a surprise hit, winning an Oscar for best documentary feature in 2007. That year, Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to educate the public about climate change. Guggenheim, 52, went on to direct Waiting for “Superman,” He Named Me Malala, and other documentaries. We spoke to Guggenheim about the role of filmmakers in effecting change, the continuing challenge of global warming, and how An Inconvenient Truth changed his life.
TakePart: A decade after its release, An Inconvenient Truth still resonates in the culture, its title shorthand for the climate crisis. What do you think accounts for the movie’s staying power?
Davis Guggenheim: I think there’s definitely something that Al Gore had figured out that was so apparent when we saw his slide show 10 years ago. When he gave his talk at TED this year, you could just feel that he is continuing to explain this issue in a way only he can. That’s a huge part of it. But also, [Participant Media founder] Jeff Skoll’s commitment to getting this message out there and Participant’s incredible expertise in not just making good films but connecting audiences to them is also a huge part of it.
TakePart: Documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and Blackfish have had huge impacts on the way society looks at issues such as climate change and marine mammal captivity. What role do you see for filmmakers and other artists in fostering positive change?
Guggenheim: I believe that films can engage an audience that often feels disconnected from an issue. There’s this need people have to want to engage, but they don’t know how. I think it’s still always been a challenge, and it’s more a challenge now in an incredibly changing market and in the way people connect through social media. I do feel like when we made An Inconvenient Truth there was a gap between people’s intuitive sense of what the issue was and the way it is being talked about in the media, and that our film kind of filled that gap. Journalists were saying there was still a debate about climate change, and traditional news and newspapers were not quite getting it right, and the combination of Al and his slide show and the combination of maybe the way the film was made filled that gap. It struck a chord because it finally made this very confusing issue make sense to people.
TakePart: Did making An Inconvenient Truth lead to changes in your own lifestyle?
Guggenheim: Oh, yeah. I have solar panels on my house and office. The most exciting thing is that I have an electric car now. When I plug it in I’m getting electricity straight from my solar panels, so my car is powered by the sun. It sounds still so unbelievable and futuristic that you can actually drive a car with no carbon footprint. Every time I turn on my air conditioning, I know it’s not burning coal. That’s one piece of it. The other piece of it is just the consciousness, which is beautiful and terrifying at the same time. The beautiful is that you can actually really make changes that are not just good for the environment but are healthier and less expensive, often. Then the horrible is that knowing what I know about climate change, there’s so much that needs to be done, and if we don’t do it, there may not be a planet for my children. That part of it is horrifying because it keeps me up at night. I worry that we are just not doing enough.
TakePart: In the movie, Al Gore made a dramatic and persuasive case that climate change is real and happening now. A decade later, much of the world, with a few notable exceptions, has accepted that truth. Is there still a need for the movie to be seen?
Guggenheim: I think there’s still a need for this movie and many, many more. This issue is not going away. I hope it would. Even if we did all the right things right now, there would be the consequences of a changing world from the damage we’ve already created. So what are the new solutions? What is our behavior right now? How do we adapt? I’m waiting for the next great An Inconvenient Truth. I’m waiting for the next filmmaker to inspire me.
TakePart: One of the messages of An Inconvenient Truth was that there was still time to do something about climate change. It took world leaders a decade to act on that message by signing the Paris accord on climate change. Has time run out, or do you still have hope for meaningful change?
Guggenheim: If you see Al Gore’s more recent TED Talk, it’s very optimistic. It’s interesting what’s happened in 10 years. The urgency has gotten greater. All the things he predicted are worse. The loss of time is terrifying. Our reaction has been way too slow. At the same time, there’s a lot more reason to be optimistic. In An Inconvenient Truth we really struggled with what we called the solutions section of the movie, which is very short and very unsatisfying. We had a shot of a windmill and a couple of Priuses driving around. There was a lot of talk about changing light bulbs, which right now seems like putting a Band-Aid on a massive head wound. Now there are some pretty exciting solutions, and they keep coming every day. So the urgency is much, much greater, but the solutions are much more promising. My fear is not that we aren’t going to respond—we will respond; we have to respond—my question is, will we respond fast enough?
TakePart: Did making An Inconvenient Truth change your approach to documentary filmmaking?
Guggenheim: Oh, yeah. Forever. First of all, we all dreamed of it having a big impact, but none of us could imagine it happening. There were some storytelling challenges in the making of that film. We filmed a slide show, and how do you make that relevant to an audience when Al Gore is not in the room? When he is in the room it’s pretty exciting; when he’s not in the room it’s less exciting. I knew we had to make the narrative personal because to me, all good stories are personal. We would intercut more personal things of Al inside of this more technical slide show. We figured out this formula to that, and I realized that could be done in other movies. It very much influenced my making of Waiting for "Superman" and He Named Me Malala, which intercut between wildly different types of information and types of storytelling. Before that I was a more traditional documentary filmmaker. First I thought it was an unfortunate challenge, but it’s almost a cliché now that as an artist or as a filmmaker sometimes the boxes you’re confined in offer opportunities you could never imagine, and sometimes what those opportunities offer are breakthroughs.
TakePart: In the last 10 years, the media and film world have undergone a radical change with the rise of social media, Netflix, and Amazon. If you made An Inconvenient Truth today, would you change your approach and the way you got the message out?
Guggenheim: The movie industry is changing in ways we don’t understand. How people get their information and certainly experience important stories is changing. I still love the idea of people gathering in a dark room and watching a flickering light together, because there’s something communal about watching important stories together. I still believe that is possible. But more and more, especially younger people are seeing movies in different ways, on their laptops, on their phone. When we made An Inconvenient Truth, the iPhone wasn’t out. I remember we would have screenings; we printed up these cards to hand out with the 10 things you can do. Those cards feel like an antique now. You can get all that information in 100 different ways through social media. So that’s promising. So if you do have a message everywhere, how do you get your message seen through all the clutter? If An Inconvenient Truth came out today, I have a sense that it would have the same kind of response, but perhaps in a different form.